Skip to content

Saved from the wrecking ball

King Yin Lei, restored to its former glory

Perched on a prime location by Stubbs Road, high above the racecourse at Happy Valley, the bricks of King Yin Lei are a silent witness to the explosive growth of Hong Kong. Built in 1937, the mansion is a dream in ‘Chinese Renaissance’, an East-West blend that was popular before the Second World War. Few historic structures of any significant age remain in this city, which has gained a reputation for tearing down almost anything in the name of profit.

On a rainy weekend morning, as my father and I stood in the shelter of its front porch, we gazed at the patina of the original floor tiles, a marked contrast to the newer, lighter-coloured patches. A guide explained what we were seeing. “The tiles that we’re now standing on, these were once destroyed… it was all just broken soil.”

In September 2007, three years after the mansion passed to a new buyer, King Yin Lei was very nearly lost to the threat of redevelopment.

Under the owner’s auspices, a team of labourers embarked on a spree of wanton destruction: windows and doors were smashed, tiled floors gouged out, granite balustrades torn from their bases, with axes taken to the brickwork and ornate plaster ceilings. From the street, the most conspicuous damage was done to the roofs, now stripped entirely of their glazed tiles.

Vigilant neighbours reported their observations to the police and the media soon got wind of what was happening. I remember the anger I felt reading their reports; the owner had hoped, in its severely damaged state, that King Yin Lei would no longer be worth protecting.

Public opinion prompted the government to order a freeze on the demolition, rescuing the structure at the eleventh hour as they began negotiations for a land swap. An adjacent site of the same size would be given in return for the mansion, while the full cost of its restoration was paid – and rightfully so – by the thoughtless owner.

But the challenges faced by those restoring King Yin Lei were far greater than anything they had previously seen. Tasked with reproducing its glory from the small portions that were not damaged, conservationists enlisted help from a slew of unlikely sources. Footage from  movies and TV series filmed at the mansion would prove instrumental in restoring the interiors of the upper floor, and the accuracy of the restoration was verified by those who knew it best: previous owners, former housekeepers and gardeners.

A great deal of help came from experts in Mainland China, where a search was mounted for craftsmen who possessed the knowledge already lost in Hong Kong. A master craftsman came out of retirement to revive traditional methods, helping to recreate the mansion’s decorative elements in painstaking detail. Our guide recognised the fortuitousness of these events. “If all this had happened 10, or maybe 15 years later… that old master craftsman may not have been alive.”

"King Yin Lei", read from right to left

“King Yin Lei”, read from right to left

Window details

Window details

The covered gallery, used for playing mahjong

The covered gallery, used for playing mahjong

An original among replicas

An original among replicas

Metalwork above the main entrance

Metalwork above the main entrance

Details on the front porch

Details on the front porch

Gilded glory inside the entrance hall

Gilded glory inside the entrance hall

The Round Dining Room

The Round Dining Room

Facing the central courtyard

Facing the central courtyard

On the upper floor balcony

On the upper floor balcony

The harbour view, now blocked by skyscrapers

The harbour view, now blocked by skyscrapers

Chinese Renaissance

Chinese Renaissance

Looking out from the annex

Looking out from the annex

Past and present

Past and present

King Yin Lei from Stubbs Road

King Yin Lei from Stubbs Road

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. CitraGran Cibubur #

    Reblogged this on CitraGran Cibubur.

    August 21, 2013
  2. Remarkable and well worth preserving! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    August 21, 2013
    • You’re welcome Carissa! Good thing the authorities stepped in just in the nick of time…

      August 21, 2013
  3. Fantastic. I’m glad to hear this jewel was saved … and I hope to be able to see it in person one day! Thanks for telling us about it.

    August 21, 2013
    • At the moment it’s open more or less one weekend each month, and there’s talk of turning this place into a museum. Perhaps it will be the next time you come to Hong Kong!

      August 21, 2013
      • Good stuff.
        I’ve never been to HK, although many of my relatives have — and my interest in the place is greater now than it was when I was a child. One day 😉

        August 22, 2013
  4. Beautiful pictures! I had to check the definition for “auspices”. You make me want to be a better photographer and writer – thank you for the inspiration!

    August 21, 2013
    • You’re welcome Mandy! Thank you too for the kind words, I’m very flattered. 🙂

      August 22, 2013
  5. It’s such a relief that this beautiful building was saved from a total demolition. Sadly many others ended up being razed down to make ways for new developments. I guess education plays a vital role in ensuring the preservation of historical buildings in any city in the world because by having the awareness of the intangible value of such building in a society, the people can do more to prevent the same thing from happening again. Despite the rather gloomy sky, the mansion does look beautiful! Nice shots of the details James!

    August 22, 2013
    • I agree completely, Bama… education is of paramount importance and much more needs to be done in Asia’s larger cities. The heritage movement here in Hong Kong is a new phenomenon, if this happened 10 years ago I doubt it would truly raise a fuss!

      August 22, 2013
  6. A thought provoking view from the upper level balcony; who could have seen that coming in 1937? Such a beautiful building with wonderful detail saved in part by that master craftsman that came back out of retirement.
    Wonderful post.

    August 22, 2013
    • Yes, judging by old photographs the mansion would have had a sweeping sea view… it’s incredible how much the skyline has changed in the past 20-30 years alone. Even the Hong Kong of my parents looked entirely different!

      August 22, 2013
  7. I love the contrast of the old, traditional building with the new skyscrapers lurking in the background. I’m glad they saved it! It looks like a beautiful place! 😀

    August 23, 2013
    • It is gorgeous, you can really see why some movies and TV series were filmed inside. 😀 That contrast seems to be pretty common in the older parts of Hong Kong – living here, I sometimes take it for granted!

      August 24, 2013
  8. Wow! Would have been a great shame to see this torn down!

    August 23, 2013
    • Absolutely Stephen, it came dangerously close to that…

      August 24, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on A Thousand Miles… and commented:
    Some things are worth saving. This is one of them.

    August 23, 2013
    • Hmm. Looks like you can’t re-blog to a self-hosted site. That’s a shame.

      August 23, 2013
      • No worries – seems like WordPress are keen to keep it within their network.

        August 24, 2013
  10. While reading your description how this grand old building was being torn apart, I truly felt the pain. Oh if only walls and tiles and balustrades could cry! It’s like gang rape, the hapless victim is defenseless. She maybe back on her feet alive but the trauma will live on – same as this old mansion, visitors will get to know what happened.

    August 26, 2013
    • I think we were all horrified when it leaked out onto the newspapers and TV channels. That was an important lesson, and perhaps a watershed, for Hong Kong’s heritage protection movement. You have to wonder why it took so long for the authorities to be this proactive – Singapore had it figured out decades in advance!

      August 27, 2013
  11. Oh my God! It is such a beautiful building. How cruel, thoughless and plain must have been the person who started to demolish that! What was his plan – to build new shiny glass buidling? Preserving those beautiful pieces of someones mastership is our duty! It’s beauty is breathtaking! Thank you for showing it!

    August 26, 2013
    • I couldn’t agree more, it’s astonishing how the workers had the nerve to try and destroy such a work of beauty. Clearly its new owner wanted to raze the mansion and build some luxury apartments instead, thankfully this was stopped by the public outcry!

      August 27, 2013
  12. James, It’s so fortunate that this stunning mansion was saved from ruthless development. As a lover of architecture, I’ve read of ‘Chinese Renaissance’ but never seen an actual structure. Beautiful! And your point about the good luck of finding a master craftsman is excellent. Wonderful post! All the best, Terri

    August 27, 2013
    • Thank you, Terri – in a way it’s a miracle that the threat of development did not knock on these doors until 2007. We’ve already lost countless heritage buildings in the space of the past 30-odd years…. my parents clearly remember a stately General Post Office, a grand Edwardian railway station on the waterfront, and colonial mansions that used to pepper the hillsides above the city. Now there’s a palpable urgency to save whatever is still left.

      August 27, 2013
  13. Thank God the authorities acted on time to save this beauty! I could understand poverty being the leading factor in the destruction of heritage buildings. But it is unforgivable that in most every case it is sheer greed. Wishing more strength to the heritage movements in Hong Kong and around the world 🙂

    September 2, 2013
    • Absolutely, Madhu! Thanks to astronomical rents, an inherent desire to make money, and a chronic shortage of buildable land, there is precious little in the way of heritage buildings here in Hong Kong… what we have certainly pales in comparison to Mumbai, Shanghai and Singapore.

      September 3, 2013
  14. Sherry Chan #

    What a beautiful historical building! Is it open to the public? Are there tours? Thanks in advance.

    September 11, 2013
    • It’s open to the public about one weekend each month, although I can’t say for certain as that’s more likely in the summer and spring. You have to get advance tickets though! Hopefully the mansion will be open all year-round in the near future…

      September 11, 2013
  15. That is truly a lovely piece of historical architecture to find hidden away behind the skyscrapers of HK Island – I love the view of the skyline, the harbor, and the mainland in the distance as seen from the upper balcony.

    It’s fantastic that not only Hong Kong natives but Mainland Chinese contributed in different ways to protect and restore this structure. A project worthy of such collaboration, to be sure.

    Beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing this.

    October 24, 2013
    • You’re welcome Emily – thanks in turn for the lovely comment. I can’t imagine if we lost this beautiful mansion to the greed of developers, we came dangerously close to that outcome. Good thing a wave of public opinion swayed the government to step in!

      October 24, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: